About to Re-watch Star Trek

So a few words about my history with Star Trek, ending with my reflection that while I was obsessed by the show in my teens, I haven’t seen but a handful of episodes, at all, in 40 years. (I’m talking only about the original series.) But now I’m about to re-watch the entire series.

It’s fair to say that Trek is my favorite TV series of all time, and the series that had the most influence on me in my entire life. I saw most of it when first broadcast on NBC from 1966 to 1969, and became obsessed by it for the several years it then ran in syndication (i.e. reruns on local stations, typically five days a week).

Its impact on me was partly about me — I was 11 years old when the show debuted. There’s a saying in science fiction, “the golden age of science fiction is 12”. Meaning, the golden age isn’t a fixed era of classic stories from 1939 to 1950, or 1962 to 1969, or any such thing; the golden age is whatever kind of science fiction you discover when you’re 12 years old. That’s when it has its impact — the idea of greater realms, of other possible modes of being, of strange exciting worlds that you never suspected might exist.

At the same time, Trek *was* an important and influential show. Its impact on so many people is evidenced by its growth into a major cultural theme. What was a show followed in its time by a relatively small group of increasingly obsessive fans has grown, over the decades, into a world-wide cultural institution, where everybody knows who Mr. Spock is, and everybody recognizes the Enterprise musical fanfare.

For me Trek was preceded by Lost In Space, a much lesser show than nevertheless also affected me greatly (I was 10) and has garnered a loyal following over the decades, to the point where occasional remakes are floated or actually made. LIS had its attractive elements — and I’ll discuss them at length eventually — but also its absurdities, relying often on monster-of-the-week plotting, and crippled by scientific illiteracy. Trek, I recall, was advertised before its premiere as an “adult” science fiction show, and I remember assuring my parents — at age 11! — that, nevertheless, I was eager to see it.

Trek TOS ran for three years, at a time when I was the eldest child in a family of four, in a household with *one* TV — that was *black and white*! The former point meant that I didn’t always have dibs to see my favorite show; sometimes my sister would want to see “Tarzan” instead, and I would have to defer. Nevertheless, I’m sure I saw the majority of the series’ 79 episodes when they were first broadcast, which means that the episodes I saw, I saw in their entirety. The second point, that our TV was black and white, meant however that I never saw the show in its initial run in color.

My devotion to the show was fueled by the publication of a book called The Making of Star Trek, by Stephen E. Whitfield, in 1968, a history of the show’s development, with sketches of early Enterprise designs, interviews with Roddenberry, production staff, and actors, and so on, and ending with a list of episodes broadcast up to then — the first two seasons. I bought that book sometime in 1968 and read and reread it obsessively. I must have compiled my own list of 3rd season episodes as they were broadcast. Even if I missed a week for some reason, the TV Guide listings in those days included the episode titles, so I had a list of all the 3rd season shows even if I didn’t see them all at the time.

(I certainly remember seeing “The Cloud Minders” when it was first shown, because I was in a hospital bed recovering from a ruptured appendix at the time.)

TV was very different in those days, in that once a show’s broadcast run ended, the show could easily vanish into the ether, with no expectation by producers or studio execs or fans that it would ever been seen again. There were summer reruns, of course — a show like Trek produced 26 or 29 new episodes per season, running from September through April, with some of them rerun over the four summer months before the next season began. Thus if one did miss an episode on first-run, you could hope it would be rerun over the summer. But you couldn’t count on it.

But summer reruns aside — There were no video tapes, no DVDs, no Blu-rays, and no cable channels or streaming services. There was, however, syndication, a process whereby older shows were leased, or syndicated, to TV stations local to particular cities for broadcast as reruns, typically every weeknight. Generally this worked only for shows that had enough episodes to make it profitable for a local station to run them 5 times a week and keep the audience interested without cycling around to familiar material too quickly. Fortunately, Trek had lasted three seasons, the practical minimum, on NBC. And it had a devoted, if then small, audience, one that had gotten the show renewed for its third season when NBC was inclined to cancel it.

(This type of syndication is still around today, which is how we can watch The Big Bang Theory every single night, forever.)

The loyal fan base was enough to put Trek into syndication immediately after its summer reruns ended in 1969. Suddenly, all the episodes were available, shown at a rate of five times a week, and at that rate it took only 16 weeks to run through the entire series. I could catch up on all the episodes I missed! And I did, in fairly short order. (Since James Blish’s first couple Trek books had been released before the show ended, there were a handful of episodes I read his version of before I ever saw the originals.)

There was a catch, though. The local TV stations were under no obligation to show each episode in its entirety, and to maximize their advertising revenue, the universal practice (whether in suburban Chicago, were my family was in fall 1969, or in LA, to which we returned in the summer of 1971) was to snip 5 or 7 minutes out of each show, in order to show that many more minutes of commercials.

So while you could catch up on all the episodes, you weren’t seeing the *complete* episodes, and to an obsessed devotee, that was extremely frustrating.

On the other hand, as I watched the episodes again and again, in late 1969 and then in 1970 and 1971 — at some point I started taking notes, about the stardates in each episode, the names of planets mentioned, and so on; my own little concordance — I realized that the local stations apparently didn’t create a set of edits for indefinite use. They edited each episode each time they showed it. And more often than not, it was edited differently. That meant scenes that had been cut one time might be included the next time the episode turned up, 16 weeks or so later. And so by diligent watching, over many months and years, one might hope to have seen the entirety of each and every episode.

Also, at some point fairly early in Trek’s syndication run, my parents bought our first color TV (around 1970 I think). From that point on, my interest wasn’t only in seeing episodes of my favorite show again, it was seeing them in color! And color, in those early days of color TV, was deliberately vibrant, as the stark red/blue/tan colors of Enterprise uniforms in that show illustrated. (Compare the much more muted colors of Next Gen.)

As I’ve mentioned there was another resource about the show — James Blish’s “novelizations” of episodes that began with the book Star Trek in 1967 and continued for a decade, until Star Trek 12 (1977). Each book had short story versions of 6 or 7 episodes. Unfortunately, and ironically, Blish’s adaptations were much more liberal in the early books — condensations of detailed scripts, with changes that were usually improvements — while becoming much more literal in the later ones (at fans’ requests, apparently). So his early books were invaluable for being able to read versions of episodes I’d missed, but those versions weren’t exact enough to fill in individual scenes that I might have missed in the edited syndicated episodes I had seen. (I’ll post an appreciation of Blish’s early Trek books at some point.)

At some point part-way through college, say 1975 or so, when I was 20, my obsession with Trek rather suddenly evaporated. I think the reason was that by that time I had discovered, not just literary science fiction in books and magazine, which I’d already been reading since 1969 or 1970, but also SF journalism — I had discovered A Change of Hobbit bookstore near UCLA, and there discovered the newsletter called Locus. So now I wasn’t just reading random paperbacks by authors I’d already heard of (Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke), but was able to know about what new books were popular, what stories were being nominated for awards, and so on, and my attention turned there.

(Ironically, my reputation in my family as a Trek fan lasted forever; they never understood how my interest in science fiction became so much more than that. At my father’s funeral, in 2001, and old family friend giving a eulogy identified my father’s eldest son [me] as a “Trekkie”. I was mortified, but said nothing.)

Eventually, of course, VHS players came along (in the late ’70s) and then DVDs and their players (in the ’80s), and shows with followings like Trek became available in those formats. And I did buy a few VHS tapes, and later DVDs, of a few episodes. Early Trek DVDs had 2 episodes per disc, unlike current DVD and Blu-Ray sets. And at the time, perhaps in the ’90s, I watched only a handful. I never bought a complete series set.

I saw the early Trek films, and I watched every episode but one that I missed in the last season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But I’ve never watched any of Next Gen again. (Perhaps I will, eventually.) And I checked in only once or twice with all of the subsequent Trek series and films. I’d moved on.

But I still retain an affection for the original series, and after all these years, I bought a complete Blu-Ray set last year. Not only does this set include all the shows, but it also has versions with “enhanced visual effects” that were produced a decade or so ago (by CBS, I think, who ironically owns the show now), and which I’ve never seen. And now I’m about to sit down and watch the entire series again, over the next few weeks or months. As I do so, I have these conclusions from this reflection on my history with Trek:

1, While I saw all these episodes over and over in my late teens, I don’t think I’ve seen most of them at all in the 40 years since then.

2, Because of the vagaries of syndication, and the fact that I missed original broadcast of some shows, it’s very likely that there are a few scenes in a few episodes that I’ve never seen in color. And possibly never seen at all! That’s a very intriguing possibility. If there are such scenes, will I recognize them when I see them?

3, I watched the show so obsessively for those few years from 1969 to 1975 or so, that certain lines of dialogue, and their intonations, and quite a few musical cues, have become cemented into my mental vocabulary. I wonder how I’ll respond hearing them again.

4, I’m also fascinated to reflect on the ways the show might now seem very dated. The gender relationships; the cheesy special effects; the slapdash science (in some cases); how so many stories were resolved with fistfights.

5, And finally, given my current retrospective reflections on the themes of science fiction and how they do, or do not, represent progressive social, technological, and moral issues, I’ll be looking to see how the Trek TOS episodes exhibited any such trends, or did not.

I’ll report back periodically as I proceed.

(Updated slightly 3Feb18)

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